Category Archives: Martin Scorsese

A Cross We Must Bear?

My weekly Bible study group has been using a fascinating book titled “Cries from the Cross” by Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor at Chicago’s Moody Church. It is a short work, but full of riches, as Lutzer examines the last words of Jesus, cried out in anguish as He hung on the cross.

We concluded our studies recently with the book’s Epilogue, “Taking the Cross into the World,” where the author reminded us that the cross represents the great reversal of values of the world.

Cries from the CrossFor example, he relates, in the early centuries after Jesus, Christianity “captured” North Africa, thanks to the “love of the Christians that defied explanation.”

Thus, when Christians found dead bodies abandoned in the street they washed them and gave them a decent burial. “The pagans were impressed with these unexplained acts of love,” writes Lutzer.

It reminded me of Shusaku Endo’s great novel “The Silence” (soon to be released as a movie by Martin Scorsese), with his strikingly similar depiction of the attraction of Christianity for 16th-century Japanese peasants:

I tell you the truth – for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.

And yet – Christianity was later eradicated from both North Africa and Japan through oppression and force of arms. Remnants remain in both places, but they are small and without much influence.

Is it truly enough just to have a love that defies explanation? Do Christians not need something more? Like our own armies? Or is regular persecution simply the cross we must always bear?

One of the members of my Bible study group commented during our discussion that God surely has a purpose in allowing the depravities of ISIS that we are witnessing in the Middle East.

Really? I hope so. For it is at times like these that I am thrown back on Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

When Silence Would Have Been Better

Jesuit theologian William Johnston did a fine job of translating Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece “Silence” into English. The book is now set to become a movie, directed by Martin Scorsese. I am sure sales will soar.

Johnston died five years ago. I met him several decades earlier, in 1982. Here is an anecdote from our meeting.

SilenceBorn in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Johnston later traveled to Japan as a Catholic missionary. It was there that he became enamored with Buddhism, particularly Zen, to the extent that he wrote a book titled “Christian Zen.” He also became a teacher at Tokyo’s Sophia University, a very fine Catholic institution.

I had arrived in Tokyo in 1976, and was also attracted to Zen Buddhism. As a journalist, I began writing about it, and with Buddhist scholar John Stevens I co-authored a book, “Zen Guide.”

Doing research for this book, I several times attended Zen meditation sessions at Sophia University that were run by Johnston and other Catholic priests there. (I should mention that my co-author John Stevens was pretty scornful of attempts to fuse Zen and Christianity, so none of this made it into “Zen Guide.”)

Here is how I described it in another book of mine, “Journey Out Of Nothing:”

I attended one of the services, and was underwhelmed. A dozen-or-so participants sat on tatami mats in a small room, spent a short time in meditation, and then a priest recited a short liturgy, said a prayer and gave a brief homily. I could not see the point of it all.

After the service a group of several young Spanish and Latin American priests prepared a delicious meal – including squid cooked in its own ink, which I was able to taste for the first time – and we ate together, and drank Spanish red wine.

The handsome young Latin priests were a lively bunch, noisy and cheeky (a Catholic friend later told me that most of them ended up marrying Japanese girls). And I should confess that we were all drinking a lot of that excellent Spanish wine.

This was in 1982, and the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina was then raging. At one point in the evening a Spanish priest turned to a young Argentinian priest and in a loud voice pointed at me and shouted repeatedly (in English): “He’s British. He’s British. Don’t you want to fight him?” It was meant as a humorous attempt to rile his colleague, but it came across as something of an aggressive taunt. (I was not British. I’m now a naturalized Australian. Back then I was a New Zealander.)

The young Argentinian was clearly embarrassed, as the Spanish priest wouldn’t stop. He kept shouting, “He’s British,” and pointing at me. I too became embarrassed. I was sitting right by William Johnston, so to try to defuse the situation I turned to him and said the first words that came to me: “I suppose as an Irishman you support Argentina in the Falklands.” It was meant as a light-hearted quip.

His immediate response: “As a human being I support Argentina.”

To which I replied: “Oh, as a human being I support the British.” As I said, we had all been drinking a lot of red wine.

Johnston looked at me for a moment with what seemed to be stunned silence, and then he launched into one of the most aggressive tirades of abuse against the British that I have ever heard. I forget the details, but I know it encompassed his upbringing in Belfast and the discrimination he encountered there, followed by his later years as an Irishman in Liverpool. I recall that at one point he was even fuming about British actions in the 16th century during the Spanish Armada.

Now it was I who was stunned into silence. I was not a Christian and had in fact been raised in an anti-Christian household. Yet, somehow, I still had something of an old-fashioned image of men of the cloth – possibly from hardly ever having met any – that they were quiet, humble, hard-working, peaceful and eternally gracious. I was quite shocked by this torrent of abuse.

I was a spiritual seeker back then, but fortunately I was still deeply into the Zen phase of my journey towards Jesus. I suspect that, had I been investigating Christianity, then that tirade from Johnston, the former missionary, would have lost me. It was only some years later, in 1993 that I found Jesus (or should I say that He found me?) here in Australia.

New Movie Spotlights Christian Persecution – Too Late for Mideast Faithful

A forthcoming new film from famed director Martin Scorsese is set to confront the movie-going public with the issue of the persecution of Christians.

It is “Silence,” based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Silence“Silence,” Endo’s masterpiece, is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of an idealistic Portuguese missionary trying to help his Christian brethren in Japan, while the authorities work to eradicate the religion.

It is based on real people and real events, and it is striking to read of the cruelty that was employed by the Japanese shogun – military leader – and his officials, so determined were they to rid Japan of Christianity and all that it stood for.

A favored torture method was to hang a Christian upside-down over a pit of excrement, with a tiny cut behind the ear sending blood – one slow drop at a time – running down the victim’s face. Merciful death could take a week.

At other times a Christian was tied to a pole that was secured in the sea. High tide would come up just to the victim’s neck, then the water would abate. Again, death was slow.

Now we are seeing something similar happening in Iraq and Syria, with Christianity under attack from a merciless campaign of genocide by the criminals of ISIS.

It is difficult to obtain reliable news from the region, but it is clear that ISIS has already blown up and destroyed churches, monasteries and historic sites, such as the tomb in Nineveh where, according to tradition, the prophet Jonah was buried. Hundreds of thousands have fled.

Nineveh is part of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and large numbers of Christians lived and worshipped there for nearly 2,000 years. It is now possible that not one Christian remains.

The seventeenth-century Japanese authorities were equally relentless and brutal as they forced hundreds of thousands of believers to renounce their faith. They achieved almost total success in uprooting Christianity from their homeland.

Yet when the country was opened up again to the West, 200 years later, visitors were amazed to discover scattered remnants of secret believers, still covertly practising their faith.

This might be some cause for comfort, as we witness the holocaust now taking place in the Mideast. But we must also remember that, despite all the intense efforts of missionaries over the past 150 years, fewer than one per cent of Japan’s population today are Christian.

Yes, a remnant of secret believers might linger in ISIS-controlled territory. But I repeat what I have already written – the events that we see unfold before us in the Middle East today are a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The new Scorsese movie may well spark outrage among the general public about the persecution of Christians. I hope it does. But it will come too late for the faithful of Iraq and Syria.

The Reality of Evil

As Christianity faces extinction in the Middle East, under attack from a merciless campaign of genocide by the criminals of ISIS, it is distressing that the response of the West has been so weak.

Even Christians appear shell-shocked by events, and do not seem to know what to do, other than pray and donate to relevant charities.

Probably they simply do not know what to do. But I suspect that many of us simply cannot comprehend that the appalling evil we hear about is actually a reality in the twenty-first century.

SilenceA new movie might be about to change such notions.

Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s greatest living directors. He seems to make a new film every two or three years, and often it is a massive hit. His last movie, released in 2013, was the hugely popular “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

That was not a Christian movie. But his next one, due for release late this year or early in 2016, might be.

It is “Silence,” based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

“Silence,” Endo’s masterpiece, is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of an idealistic Portuguese missionary working to help his Christian brethren in Japan in the face of attempts by the authorities to eradicate the religion.

Sadly for much of the time he feels that God is remote, and not answering his prayers – hence the novel’s title.

It is based on real people and real events, and it is striking to read of the cruelty that was employed by the Japanese shogun – military leader – and his officials. The book portrays the torture in some detail, and I assume the movie will do the same.

A favored method was to hang a Christian upside-down over a pit of excrement, with a tiny cut behind the ear sending blood – one slow drop at a time – running down the victim’s face. Death could take a week.

At other times a Christian was tied to a pole that was secured in the sea. High tide would come up just to the victim’s neck, then the water would abate. Again, death was slow.

I do not know how graphic Scorsese will be in depicting the barbarity of the seventeenth-century torturers. I hope he is unflinching. The world needs to see the reality of evil. It is just this manner of evil that is occurring now, in our own time.

Persecuted Japanese Christians the Theme of New Scorsese Movie

Renowned movie director Martin Scorsese has released initial details of his forthcoming movie “Silence,” which has as its theme the persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century, and God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Starring Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Adam Driver and Ciarán Hinds, it is based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel of the same name by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo.

It tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuits who journey to Japan to investigate the well being of a fellow priest.

Speaking at a press conference in Taiwan, where he has been filming the movie, Scorsese told journalists that he had been wanting to make the movie for many years.

“The subject matter presented by Shusaku Endo was in my life since I was very young,” he said. “I was very much involved in religion. I was raised in a strong Catholic family.”

Under the guidance of Portuguese missionaries, Christianity began to flourish in Japan during the 16th century, even gaining the endorsement and protection of the country’s military rulers, the shoguns.

But suspicions that the missionaries might be spies eventually led to a change of heart by the shoguns, and a period of harsh persecution began, with the aim of the total eradication of the religion from Japan.

This saw the emergence of the kakure kirishitan (hidden Christians), who maintained their practices in secret for more than 200 years. Much of Endo’s novel is based on these underground groups and their efforts to hold onto their faith in the face of some of the worst persecution of Christians that the world had witnessed since Roman times.

The Scorsese movie is set for release in late-2015 or early-2016.